Opportunities for retail IT departments in 2017

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In the corporate world of now-a-days, there are rarely any processes that do not depend heavily on IT technology. Ranging from purchase systems, CRMs, ERPs and all other decision and relation supporting systems through in store equipment like POSes, up to corporate core functions like data, communications and reporting.

The range of IT responsibilities in a corporation is vast and while IT departments tend to be rather large and crowdy and the annual IT budget growing year-by-year, most of line of business managers say that their corporate IT is a show stopper. None-the-less there are many opportunities to improve that impression.

Driving innovation

With the increasing push from corporate boards and shareholders for innovation, many companies think of and discuss different ways how innovation can be achieved and accelerated. Innovation is a very modern buzz word of now-a-days. But far from a simple hype, many of the world biggest companies invest heavily their resources to stay ahead of their competitors. Driving innovation is a demanding process with many risks and pitfalls.

There are three basic steps that help you to ignite innovation: allocating needed resources, creating and maintaining a spirit driving new ideas and allowing new concepts or ideas that are not “conform” to your company’s current strategy.

IT departments can play a vital role here as many Innovations are aided in their core by IT technology. Especially for retail IT, there are many new windows of opportunities open here … In-store analytics is a new and promising way to explore one’s customer journey in the brick-and-mortar stores.

Clearly articulate the value of tech innovation

This is a vital point for all innovation activities. There are many excellent ideas out in the world with little to none practical use. Even things that worked for one company might not work for another. During the innovation process sooner or later every idea will be presented in front of the board to ask for funding and approval.

It is hard for many IT executives to clearly articulate the value of tech innovation, or even to explain the core idea. Speaking IT jargon and technical language in front of the board is never a good idea as it simply will not be understood. Business executives need to hear their language – costs and profits, risks and opportunities, legal and compliant views as well as impact on customers and competitors.

Making business

Many things sold now-a-days are offering IT related services. Who is better suited then IT to suggest and prepare IT gadgets? Head up displays in cars and even autonomous driving would be impossible without strong IT and business partnership. While connected cars are already reality, automotive data brokering might bring in the near future more revenue than selling cars.

Kiosks enabling customers to design and order customized meals directly in restaurants are new channels to generate revenue and Blockchain might be even the new business for banking.

Using strength of a brick-and-mortar store

Even legacy assets and systems can be a source of competitive advantage, especially when facing new digital and disruptive competition. Brick-and-mortar bound discounts are impossible to duplicate for on-line retailers and generate new traffic to one’s stores.

Agility

In the fast paces business world of today … it is no longer possible for IT departments to work in the old, reliable but slow way they did for the last 20 years. Working on system specifications for 2 months, doing the programming for 6 months, testing with users for another month and resigning the system to what the customer really wants for another 3 months makes up a year. Within this year, business has no solution and probably loses even the need for the system.

IT departments should strive to give the business a minimum viable product within weeks of communicating the need, adding functionality and stability with each iteration on a monthly basis and securing compliance and necessary paperwork at the end.

Even in the IT daily business there is a need for increased agility. As today’s businesses are more and more dependable on a round-the-clock working IT environment, response to major IT outages must be swift and well ahead of agreed service level agreements (SLA).

Educate the board

Many boards see technology as an IT issue. Understanding how to integrate technology innovation into the corporate business model is often left to lower levels of corporate hierarchy, leaving many possible gains and chances out of board’s radar. It is vital for IT execs to continuously educate the board so corporate leaders might become tech-savvy to see the potential of technologies for their business areas and the corporation as a whole.

Attracting top talents

The matter is of high importance to HR and even the whole board as attracting top talents gets harder with each generation. Gen X, Y, Z … each target group of potential employees has its own desires, specifics and quirks. In the modern world of social networking and shared feelings and experiences, employees have it easy to find job offers, salary comparisons and (ex)employee feedback on your vacant positions.

IT departments have always struggled to find and attract top talents. Best of the best were often taken by IT giants, dot.coms and Silicon Valley start-ups and facing the truth … often are corporate IT departments seen only as a costly bunch of weird nerds from the basement … tending to computers and printers. Seldom are they seen as an asset to company growth and even survival.

A common mistake in the corporate world and IT especially is the habit to try to find the fitting people for defined functions … all ignoring the fact that top talents are unique and seldom fit in corporate hierarchy layers and predefined roles of responsibilities. Even the more, growth and evolution of one’s top talents is limited and hindered by corporate HR guidelines, eventually leading to talents leaving the company. IT execs should strive to take a role of HR business partner, assuming responsibility and proactively attract and retain their key talents.


Why is multi-cultural experience highly desirable for world-wide project managers.

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In those three stories below, I’d like to demonstrate how multi-cultural experience (or the lack of) can affect large WW projects regardless of industry. As I hope you will agree, cultural, religion-related and ethnological patterns should be taken into accounts with any large scale projects.

 

 

 Story nr. 1 – WW based IT giant IT corporation, team based in EMEA, US and India. I was in charge of a team supporting an sales-supporting software tool that was deployed in EMEA, the technical infrastructure was located in US and the IT support team was based in India. During one morning (GMT+1 time) things went really bad, the tool was not accessible and it was the wrong part of the month for an outage. Knowing the stake, I approached the India based IT support team and asked for the problem to be fixed. After a moment of hesitation … the answer or my Indian liaison was : “Sure, we’re right on it, my friend”. Hours passed and the tool was still off-line. I called my liaison again and got a similar answer: “yes, we’re working hard on it”. Satisfied, I waited patiently for the problem to be fixed. As the noon time approached, I called to India again. This time an another person answered the phone … as the shifts changed in Hydrabad and my liaison was already home. The new guy seemed a bit confused and strangely not talkative but none-the-less he assured me again that the problem will soon be fixed. As the afternoon came to be, I contacted my US based superiors (as it was already morning in the certain US time zone) and asked to escalate the IT fixing process. The answer from US was astonishing … there was a problem with the connection to the data center in US and our India based IT teams were off-line for the who day. “What?” I thought. Conclusion … as it is very impolite to say: “No, we can not fix that” in certain situation in India, my Indian liaison rather considered a not-the-truth answer as a better choice rather to admit that there is a problem with the connection to US. Would I be more experienced with Indian culture, I would read the hesitation and vague answers right … instead of forcing my Indian co-workers to choose the less offending answer. 

 

Story nr. 2 – multi-national based large construction company, HQ based in Germany, building a water dam somewhere in China, average daily count of workers on the site – 1000+. The PM responsible for the project was waked one morning and told: “Well, you see, our works stopped working”. “Why?” was the surprised answer of the PM. “Well, apparently, there are bad ghosts on the construction site” was the answer. “What?!” was the PM gasping. A rumor among the local workers said that the site was occupied by bad ghosts and workers would not resume work until they will be banned by a feng-shui master. One day of work was lost till a feng-shui master was found and persuaded to visit the site. After his examination was finished, he made the ruling … “there must be a hole in the dam so that the bad chi energy can flow away”. “What?!” gasped the PM, “a HOLE in a dam?”. Another 2 days of work were lost until a work-around has been found and local worked resumed their work. Conclusion … local beliefs and folklore must be taken into account. Would the PM be more experienced with China culture, a cooperation with a feng-shui master would be considered from the start. Bonus … let’s imagine you have to explain your German superiors that you have lost 3 days of work of 1000+ workers because the construction site was occupied by bad ghosts.

 

Story nr. 3 – multi-national based large construction company, HQ based in US, building a sky scrapper somewhere in India, average daily count of workers on the site – 500+. The PM responsible for the project was waked one morning and told: “Well, you see, our works stopped working”. “Why?” was the surprised answer of the PM. “Well, there is apparently a couple of holy cows on the construction site and none of local workers will touch them or drive them away. Our vehicles can not enter the construction site”. “What?!” was the PM gasping. This time, there was no work-around, there were holy cows on the site and none that would even think about driving them away. As the solution is not the key element of this story, eventually a solution was found in 4 days. Conclusion … local faith can have an immense impact on things. A PM with enough local experience would ask a local monastery to help with the problem. Bonus … let’s imagine you have to explain your US superiors (based in Texas) that you have lost 4 days of work of 500+ workers because of a couple of cows.

 

Speaking in general, a PM with multi-cultural experience can provide a huge benefit to projects that are stretched across continents and as outsourcing and globalization are now-a-day’s trends, count of projects that could be considered as WW is rising rapidly. Smooth cooperation with local employees where cultural patterns differ from those of the project owner can be assured only with the help of an PM with the proper experience in both technical aspects of the project as well as local environment where the project is about to be executed.


Hiring manager’s expectation

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First let me state that this article is targeting fresh grads and young professionals. It is not aimed at the 5% of top talents (as there are tons of advices for this group) but at the 95% that do not qualify as top talents and instead of being hunted by companies to be hired … have to hunt companies to land a job.

Based on my experience as hiring manager, I can suggest that there are four expectations a hiring manager has when hiring fresh grads or young professionals for a junior position – enthusiasm, knowing one’s road, willingness to learn and modesty.

Enthusiasm is one of essentials to be successful is any position. It is a state of mind that turns threats to opportunities, problems to challenges. Judging on the level of enthusiasm a hiring manager can make a good guess if the applicant in question will respond to difficult situations with “let’s do it” instead of “it can’t be done”. There are many out there that can tell me that something can not be done and far less of those telling me how it can be done.

Knowing one’s road can show a hiring manager that the applicant thought about his own future, compared his/her strengths and weaknesses and decided about a professional path. Especially with fresh grads and young professionals a hiring manager enters a possible risk that after a while the young man/woman finds out that the actual position is not what he/she thought it would be and decides to change company/industry/profession.

Willingness to learn is another essential. There are many things in the corporate world that a young grad has never heard of before, many skills to learn and master, much experience to gather. Is the applicant willing to invest the time and energy to learn or does he/she think that the university and a few months/years of side jobs made him/her already a senior professional?

Modesty is simple an attitude I am expecting from someone applying for his/her first job. While I agree that today’s fresh grads and young professionals can bring out-of-the-box thinking and ideas into any company and profession, there are many skills that they are missing. In many cases applicant are missing the knowledge and experience connected directly with the company, it’s culture, ways of working and even politics. Asking for a sky high pay because one was best in his class is just not enough. Explaining how one can change the whole company without spending a single day actually working for the company is not modest at all.


Are you successful in your job?

ImageNot so long ago, during an CIO related event, I asked some of present CIOs a bit of a provoking question: “Are you successful in your job? If yes, how do you measure your success?” After a moment of silence, the answer came: “Sure I am successful, I am still keeping my job”. This KISS answer made me think about how could we measure one’s success. Due to my background I will focus on information technology leaders, but this question could be asked to any individual – manager, leader or contributor.

An CIO’s success could be measured in countless ways, but I believe the following areas count among most vital:

Functionality and stability of IT environment in one’s company
CIO’s ability to influence stakeholders outside of IT
CIO’s perception by his/her team

Functionality and stability of IT environment in one’s company sounds most easy, as both conditions could be measures and quantified – using appropriate KPIs. Unfortunately, there is no common standard for IT related KPIs, there are many different KPIs used across industries and areas. Historically given, many of used KPIs were of technical nature, perfectly readable and understandable by IT … but far less so by the business.  Just to name a few: average uptime (of whatever system), Incident resolution within Service level agreement, Number of incidents / escalations. The CIO needs to choose a set of performance indicators that will both reflect the state of IT infrastructure and services AND be readable by non-IT individuals.

 CIO’s ability to influence stakeholders outside of IT depends in the long run on one’s ability to deliver results and real value to one’s company. This will earn the CIO much needed respect across the management level and a firm starting point for discussions with CIO’s peers. Consistently delivering a functional and stable IT environment as well as projects on time and budget is the key for acceptance within the C-level suite. The ability to influence then depends heavily on the actual personality of the CIO, his/her experience and personal skills. Another strong point is CIO’s ability to build a bridge between IT and business – speaking language of both worlds. A distinct advantage would be for the CIO to have a seat in the board of directors, but it is not the seat that matters most, but the ability to catch the Board’s Ear.

CIO’s perception by his/her team might not be among a CIO’s priorities, but is more than vital. One cannot expect to continuously deliver results and value to the company without a strong and engaged team standing behind the CIO.  Personal, even psychology skills are needed to find and maintain a balance between the needs and expectations of IT guys (what is often a mixture of geeks, introverts, nerds and sworn fans of fantasy and sci-fi genres) and stakeholder’s expectations on a neatly running IT organization. Keeping team members motivated and keeping top talents is more difficult than it sounds,  different groups of IT employees require different approach. One example for many – an 2500 USD worth CISCO related training might be a great motivator for young tech oriented admins, but far less appealing for senior IT project professionals. Getting visibility in front of LOB senior managers might inspire that that senior IT project professional, but your senior information security officer would rather take a 20 miles long marathon then speak in front of (senior) public.

Are you successful in your job? Well, take your pick.


Engaging IT to business – reloaded

IT2BusinessIt was back in October last year when I wrote the original article Engaging IT to business. Through many discussions on LinkedIn or during various events where I participated, I came to the conclusion that my ideas presented in the article were just the beginning. I do not aspire to offer a complete and final concept, but some of ideas presented below might help you in your own voyage on engaging IT to business.

The key element behind the idea of engaging IT to business is the wish of IT managers to become partners to their business peers, of IT departments getting rid of the label of a cost centre and service provider “only” or of CIOs who wish to get a seat in the board.  Getting there is not easy, but I’d like to share a few ideas how to start the road to get there (… and back again).

The ball in on IT’s side. It is important to realise that it is IT that “would like to” be recognized as a partner to business, so it is IT that needs to be proactive and do the first (and several next) step. Opinions of your business peers won’t change all alone or because you wish so. Instead, IT needs to take the ball and work step by step to shift the existing paradigm. Listening to business, proactively seeking gaps to fill, taking the extra mile, generating IT driven revenue and  sharing with business might be right tools to earn “IT’s place in the sun”.

Listen to business. Sounds too simple, but in fact – this is the key to any IT initiative to engage with business. Business has is always in need to help and support, there are always sore points in need of attention or defunct processes in need of mending. Bad news is that very few of those aching issues are visible from the distance or advertised openly. It should be one of CIO’s top priorities to engage business peers in conversations trying to figure out what is bothering them. There are many different ways the CIO can take, staring from joining sales and marketing meetings, through spending a day in a week out of the HQ in the front (sales) lines, up to informal coffee events sponsored by IT. Taking an found issue as a starting point, IT should be able to mitigate pros and cons and prepare a plan how to solve it.

Proactivity is the key. Opportunities to show business that IT is actually a partner and can get things done will rarely appear out of nowhere.  In the contrary, it is IT that needs to take an proactive approach and create such opportunities. Taking a classic example … there is a new business initiative that has really the potential to make a difference, but it requires several changes in existing IT infrastructure, extra funds to buy a new server cluster and extra human resources supporting the whole idea. Considering costs, risk of negative impact to overall system stability and performance, tight time schedule for implementation and general negative perception of changes … IT usually states that this initiative / project cannot be done. But it takes not much more to come with an approach to evaluate and accept the risk of failure, find maybe a less traditional IT infrastructure concept and personal engagement within the IT department to actually say “YES” to business and make the initiative / project happen.

Take the extra mile. Requests from business are usually processed and issues or incidents solved. There difference is in customer experience as any job or task can be done well enough … or to a point of perfection.  IT should strive to take the extra mile as often as possible … not only fulfilling requests from business but rather exceeding their expectations. When asked to provide an analysis, add some extra statistical charts or add data for a larger period of time than requested. When there is a planned system downtime, makes sure that after all the systems  will be back online to check with key users if respective systems are running correctly. Should there be a repeating problem with an application regularly used, do not only solve that bug, but create some manuals or FAQs and offer in-house training to respective users.

 Generating IT driven revenue. Usually IT is supporting business processes and enabling other business units to create revenue. While this task is important, it still puts IT in the role of a service provider. IT can be presented very differently when there will be projects / initiatives sponsored and executed by IT that actually directly generate revenue. In addition to supporting your business to increase your company’s revenue, make and keep a commitment to identify, develop, get required acceptance, execute and support IT projects directly making money … at least once in a year. Staring from new payment methods, through increasing customer loyalty up to new digital products for direct sale … possibilities are endless.    

 Share with business. There are many decision made by IT that are effecting the entire company – main technology framework, BYOD, outsourcing, information security guidelines … .Inviting business managers to join the process of decision making for such projects / initiatives can bring valuable opinions, hints and ideas based on ‘real business’ experience as well as a strong feeling of engagement. Invite your business peers into respective steering committees,  create IT open days, creative IT workshops and informal meetings (Meet your IT procurement guy …). Get the buy-in from your peers to increase the acceptance.


Team engagement.

As mentioned in one of my previous articles – it the team that counts for one’s greatest assets.   In now-a-day’s fast and complex world, there are almost no tasks that could be performed completely by a single individual, no matter how educated or experienced. It is the combined effort of a team that gets things done. For many team leaders and managers there is a single question that keeps them occupied night and day: “How can I make my team engaged to what we are doing?”. Those who are there longer and lead successful teams the question is: “How do I keep my engaged to what we are doing?” Let’s explore things further.

Engagement can be developed when there is an important common goal. A ‘goal’ is an distinctive target that can be measured and objectively reached. ‘Common’ in this sense means that in way or another the whole team contributes to reaching the goal and ‘important’ highlights the fact that reaching the goal requires a lot of time, resources, skills and cooperation. Best targets to created team engagement are those that have a set time for achieving and achievement can be clearly measured like 1 = target attained, 0 = target not attained. Individual team members know this way exactly what is expected and how the success/failure will be measured.

Engagement is dependent on motivation. To be engaged to a project/task requires focus, skills and hard work often going beyond standard expectations. As there is nothing for free in this world, neither is engagement and this is where motivation comes into play. Negative motivation (“If you do not do it, we will fire you!”, “Make no mistakes, we do not pay you for mistakes”) is not working here as you need to persuade the individual that his / her extra effort (leading to engagement) will be noticed and rewarded. Positive motivation is the key here as rewarding achievements encourages people to do the extra work needed without fearing reprimands when things do not go all as expected. Occasional failure is acceptable as it removes one’s fear for punishment.

Leading by example is one of the most powerful tools a team leader / manager can employ. Only too often there is a vast gap between what the management is saying and what the management is doing. This gap is definitely perceived by the audience of employees and almost automatically lowering trust in management / leadership of the respective company. On another side,  showing constant coherence between what a team leader / manager is saying and actually doing increases the trust between the management and the team.

Getting hands dirty. A team leader / manager should not be afraid of getting hands dirty and actually doing some of the work he / she is expecting from his team. By doing this, team members … will see that the team leader / manager actually can DO things (and not only talk about it),  … will be thankful for the extra hand when there is a lot of work ahead, … will eventually form a closer relation with the team leader / manager.

Taking care of the team is a must. Since the team is there to take care about the work that needs to be done, team leader / manager is there to take care of the team. Taking care isn’t a one time job, or an occasional task, but a continuous effort that should take a considerable portion of team leader / manager’s daily work. There are many things that should be considered like:  needed equipment, communication within the team, allocation of resources, work-life balance, relations within the team …

Motivated and engaged team is the key element for every team leader / manager’s success and ability to deliver results and to earn one’s place within the company. In short terms there are other ways how to be successful even without a team backing and supporting the team leader / manager, but in long terms an engaged team is vital.


Manager’s greatest asset.

Would you guess what is manager’s greatest asset? Is it experience, skills, respect or deep understanding of respective company? I believe that the greatest asset of every manager is his / her team. It is the team that earns the good (and bad) points for the manager and it is the source of his / her greatest strength (and simultaneously weakness).

It is the team that makes most of the work. Whether a project or daily business ops, it is your team that does most of the work. Your work as a manager is not to actually “do” things, but to enable your team to do what is required.  Establishing firewall rules is the work of your network specialist, reports are created by your analysts, users are contacting your help desk. You as a manager are there to find and deploy resources for your team to help them to perform their work.

Most of the communication is done by the team. As senior manager, it is you who sits with the C-level big guys, give reports and answer their questions, but it is your Project manager who is dealing daily with communication and coordination with other departments and key users. It is your testers that spend hours with guys from business on your newest app and hear their suggestions and ideas. You as a manager are there clear pathways and forge contacts for a smooth and direct communication.

It is the team that is putting out the fires. When there is an outage of a critical system, it is again your various specialists that take care of the problem. It is your DBA who will sit all night in the office to find the primary key inconsistency or your storage specialist to check your Netapp issues with MACs. You as a manager are there to set priorities and to free s resources to be used for the fire fighting.

The biggest sum of knowledge and experience is not hidden in your knowledge base, but in the brains of your team mates. While you can write down fact and procedures, you will always need your team to execute tasks and daily work. Servers will not work all alone (granted not for long), maintenance of your apps will not be done by automatic tasks – it is again your team with the sum of its experience and  knowledge that makes things happen. You as a manager are there to enable increasing of the knowledge and to define a way how to keep and distribute it.

To make a conclusion, it is your greatest privilege as a manager to use your greatest asset for the benefit of your company. A good and motivated team can benefit the company many times better then  a mediocre or even a demotivated and low performing one … no matter how excellent or mediocre are you as the manager.